Sim Kee Boon
was one of Singapore's pioneer civil servants - men who worked closely with the Old Guard political leaders and played a key role in the success of Changi Airport and turned the fortunes of Keppel Shipyard around.
He graduated with Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Economics from University of Malaya
The University of Malaya is located on a campus near the centre of Kuala Lumpur, and is the oldest university in Malaysia. It was founded in 1905 as a public-funded tertiary institution...
in 1953, and joined the civil service that year. By 1962, at just 33, he was made acting permanent secretary in the National Development Ministry, before taking charge of the Finance Ministry as well as Intraco, the state trading company. He was also Chairman and member of the Council of Presidential Advisers.
As Permanent Secretary
The Permanent secretary, in most departments officially titled the permanent under-secretary of state , is the most senior civil servant of a British Government ministry, charged with running the department on a day-to-day basis...
at the Communications Ministry from 1975 to 1984, he made his name in the history books as the man behind was then the biggest civil project in Singapore - the construction and opening of Changi Airport - managing every aspect of the project from land reclamation to squatter resettlement. To Sim, Changi Airport project was his 'national service' to Singapore.
When Sim was given the mammoth task, he knew little about building an airport. Yet he approached the task as a layman, often asking questions and consulting his officers and staff. His hands-on, consultative management style kept staff on their toes, making sure they understand the importance of Changi project and nothing was to be overlooked. Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) chairman Liew Mun Leong remembered that Sim asked for mosaic tile samples from contractors to be displayed so staff could give feedback on tiles for the airport walls.
Sim was also known for his attention to details. As Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) for 15 years from 1984, he ensured that the airport had kept up with if not, exceed world-class quality standards. From airport management software to the texture of trolley handles, he insisted every aspect of customer experience must keep up with its impressive infrastructure.
The quality of toilets at the Airport was even under his radar. He was quoted saying that the first and last point of exposure to an airport is the toilet. It gives you an impression of the country.
He also introduced free local phone calls in the transit area and the famous '12-minute rule'. This means the first bag must be ready for retrieval 12 minutes after an aircraft grounds to a halt.
He would even walk around the Changi terminals frequently, instituting the habit of 'Management by Walking Around' in CAAS. Mr David Lum, Managing Director of Lum Chang Holdings remembered that he would make an effort to look around airport, by reaching the place one or two hours earlier and board the plane at the last minute. And finally, he also stressed that the different players - CAAS, immigration and customs authorities, airport retailers, eateries - must work together as a team for Changi to succeed,
Sim's success in his work did not stop with the development of Changi Airport. Between the years 1984 and 1999, Sim was serving concurrently as Chairmen of Keppel Corporation and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore
The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore is Singapore's Civil Aviation Authority and a statutory board under the Ministry of Transport of the Singapore Government...
. It came to him at first, that he would end Keppel as it was making losses then. Instead he took the reins and once again demonstrated his canniness and swift in his decision-making and implementation. Mr Lim Chee Onn, who was executive chairman of Keppel Corporation at the time attributed Sim's visionary abilities and his optimism 'during those very trying times' as factors which led to the renewed growth of Keppel within 5 years. With first signs of rejuvenation for Keppel, Sim diversified Keppel's portfolios into other fields like engineering, property, financial services as well as developing shipyards in other parts of the world. Keppel Corporation had become a success story that befits the image of a Singapore business icon.
Tanah Merah Country Club
Another success story of Sim was when he was the founding chairman of Tanah Merah Country Club, where he built it from scratch on a barren land, and into one of Singapore's best country clubs.
As Sim and his wife Jeanette were avid golfers, Tanah Merah Country Club was like his 'second home'. He would also personally greet new Tanah Merah Country Club members. In October 2007 his illness took a turn for the worse, and had to undergo chemotherapy. Even so, Mr Edwin Khoo, committee member at the Tanah Merah Country Club, would still see Sim regularly at the club and walking with a tube under his shirt. When he could not get himself on the greens and play, Sim would still putt around and join golf buddies for drinks most weekends for two hours.
He died on 9 November 2007 at the Singapore General Hospital, after a 17-year battle with stomach cancer.
- He is among the most versatile of our public servants ... He spent all his working life making invaluable contributions in his various roles in Government, particularly in the areas of economic development, trade and investment matters -- President S R Nathan
- Mr Sim dedicated himself fully to serving the country, and was always ready to answer the call of duty...He had a deep sense of mission, and in every assignment and task, he demanded high standards and gave of his best. His passing is a deep loss to all of us. -- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a condolence letter to Mrs Sim Kee Boon